The University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication held the 19th annual Ancil Payne Awards for Ethics in Journalism this past Wednesday, celebrating journalists from publications that exemplify courageous and thorough ethical reporting.
This year’s winners were members of Minnesota Public Radio News, who covered the breaking news that Garrison Keillor, nationally famed radio personality, author and longtime host of the hit MPR program “Prairie Home Companion,” had engaged in acts of sexual misconduct with female co-workers throughout his 40-year career.
“People were accusing us of ‘McCarthyism’ or conducting a ‘witch hunt,’” said MPR News writer Matt Sepic. “This was our own company dealing with its biggest star; we weren’t thinking about how the story would be received, we just knew it had to be reported.”
Sepic and fellow reporter Laura Yuen accepted the award on behalf of their team at MPR News, which also included Eric Ringham, Euan Kerr and Meg Martin.
17-year-old Payne Award runner-up, Joshua Fang, also joined the celebration and participated in a panel discussion about the execution and development of their stories.
Fang detailed the ethical dilemma he faced in conducting his own investigation into a lawsuit between the administration and a teacher who had been trying to speak up for victims of sexual misconduct that was being covered up at his private high school, Deerfield Academy.
And while it was those at MPR News that won this year’s Payne award, Fang may have stolen the show. Sepic and Yuen, along with those in the audience were visibly impressed by Fang’s reporting, as well his composure and humility in describing his work.
“Garrison Keillor is the largest cultural export out of Minnesota outside of Prince,” said Sepic.
“If there was no Garrison Keillor, there likely would not be any MPR, or at least not what we know it to be today.”
Not only was Keillor the public face of MPR, but he was also one of the largest faces, or voices, rather, in the radio industry. Challenging his image had the potential to harm the company’s financial productivity, and could put the job safety of those at MPR News at risk.
“[MPR] was acting in its own financial interest, just as any company in any industry would do,” said Sepic.
“The people who sign our paychecks wanted this to stay quiet,” said Yuen.
After Keillor himself broke the news of his “firing” from MPR, he controlled all of the media attention around the story. MPR News wanted to set the record straight but deemed it necessary to isolate themselves from the business side of MPR to remain unbiased and on the same level as other news organizations following the story.
“We stayed away from the staff meetings and avoided using MPR resources and audio records,” said Sepic. “We conducted our own investigation, and wanted to be clear with our audience that there would be no bias or intersection with MPR management.”
“We had to be honest and put our cards on the table. We had to tell people, ‘This is the story we are going to pursue.’ We had to stay true to our audience,” he said.
The team conducted over 70 interviews, all outside of the MPR office, with sources who attested to Keillor’s actions and the uncomfortable environment he created during his time at MPR.
As they covered the story, MPR News received a mixed bag of responses from fans of Keillor and MPR listeners. And while much of what they received were messages of anger and frustration regarding how this news tarnished Keillor’s name, Sepic noted that they saw was that their audience had a fundamental curiosity for the truth.
“Our listeners were curious to learn what had taken place and why management was not telling the truth,” said Sepic.
A senior at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, Fang talked about how he faced “scare tactics” and intimidation from the administration when they were informed of the story he was putting together.
He felt that he owed it to his fellow students to get the facts about the case out in the open to reveal the patterns of behavior at his own school that administration was actively trying to hide.
“I’ve got a younger sister coming to [Deerfield] next year,” said Fang. “I wanted to get the truth out there.”
Despite reporting to two entirely different audiences, the members of MPR News exercised many of the same strategies and values that Fang did. Furthermore, both Fang and MPR News found themselves conducting investigations within their own organizations, a situation that required detailed and careful reporting.
In the same way that MPR News faced backlash from their audience and fans of Prairie Home Companion, Fang noted how he was worried about how the news would be received by the relatively small Deerfield community.
“There are people in our community who aren’t involved with this story at all, but could be negatively impacted by this story,” said Fang. “I had to ask myself, ‘Am I responsible for the fallout of collateral damage that happens as a result of the story?’”
The Payne Awards sought out writers like Sepic, Yuen and Fang: those who are willing to release and investigate the truth despite how doing so may lead to personal attacks and backlash from their audiences.
“Uncovering truth can be incendiary,” said Gleason. “Journalists put their credibility, their job, and their lives on the line, in most extreme cases. It demands a critical mind.”
Past Payne Award winners have included Pulitzer Prize winners such as ProPublica’s Hannah Dreier, who won in 2017 for her series “Venezuela Undone” for The Associated Press.
Among this year’s finalists who weren’t able to make it to Wednesday’s ceremony include Dreier, yet again and Maggie Michael, Nariman Ayman El-Mofty and Maad al-Zikry of The Associated Press for their coverage of the war in Yemen.
The winning stories discussed in this year’s ceremony are linked below.